While Satyajit Ray’s cinematic genius is celebrated all over the world, his talent as an illustrator is less known. He developed many Indian motifs and calligraphic elements for the advertising industry. His typography and illustration would often surface in film credits and publicity posters.
How it started
In 1944, his colleague DK Gupta decided to bring out an abridged version of the novel, Pather Panchali. This book, titled Aam Anatir Bhepu, was the beginning of Ray’s rather significant journey through the world of book illustrations. Incidentally, it was also when the seeds of his celluloid masterpiece were sown.
Ray was also fascinated by typography, both Bengali and English, and produced many innovative advertising campaigns. Two of his typefaces, Ray Roman and Ray Bizarre, won an award at an international competition in 1971. Ray used the covers to innovatively experiment with bold juxtapositions of colours. Some of the covers were also like certain traditional sari designs.
Being approachable, Ray got thousands of requests for his work. Once, somebody approached him for an article on Pablo Picasso. Ray refused since he was in the middle of shooting a film, but as compensation, he offered to sketch a portrait of Picasso for their cover. Delighted, the magazine's publishers asked when they should come back to pick up the sketch. The expert illustrator that Ray was, he simply asked them to wait, picked up his drawing book and drew out the portrait below.
Illustration from Aam Antir Bhepu (ibnlive.com)
Contributions over a significant career
Ray continued to be known as an eminent graphic designer well into his film career. Ray illustrated all his books and designed covers for them, as well as creating all the publicity material for his films. He also designed covers of several books by other authors. His various influences, from calligraphy to modern Western art to traditional Indian folk art, enabled him to create some striking work.
From 1961, Sandesh ran almost entirely on Ray's creative output as he illustrated entire issues of the magazine, wrote stories and novellas, created puzzles and brain-teasers, judged contests and even answered fan mail.
It must also be mentioned that it was Satyajit Ray who designed the beautiful logo of the cultural complex in Kolkata, Nandan.
Ray used his sketches as references for set and costume design in his films. He did a lot of these in advance and hence created a number of fantastic designs which have never been used. However, very few would have been aware of these sketches. It was his film credit sequences which brought out his talents as a typographer, calligrapher and illustrator.
(L to R) Cover of Kheerer Putul; poster of Charulata; cover of Pagla Dashu (telegraphindia.com)
Another work of art uncovered
The Zoo Springs To Life! A New Kind of Picture-Thrill is a 3D photograph book on Alipore Zoo, for which Satyajit Ray himself had designed the cover, probably sometime in the forties. This has generated much interest among the wildlife buffs in the city.
The stereographs were done by cinematographer and filmmaker Neemai Ghosh and comprise photographs of sixteen animals that the zoo had housed back then.
Stereography uses a pair of two dimensional images to render a three dimensional effect in the mind of the viewer. It is much like the way children's 3D books work. But you need the old 3D glasses to view this book, digital ones won't do.
Conservationist Suchandra Kundu, granddaughter of Neemai Ghosh, said that her grandfather had first made 3D images and glasses manually in India, probably in the thirties. Being a wildlife enthusiast, he had taken the photographs. In those days, there wasn’t much scope to explore the forests of India so he used to visit zoos to photograph wild animals. Suchandra also believes that the book was published by Radio Supply Stores (Cinema) Ltd before her mother's birth in 1949.
The book has the only photograph of a great grey kangaroo in Alipore Zoo. These marsupials bred prolifically in the zoo but the eventually colony died out due to an imbalanced gender ratio. This book should ideally have been made public by the Alipore Zoo authorities themselves. However, the zoo officials did not even know about its existence.
Cover of The Zoo Springs To Life! (The Times of India, July 1, 2015)
How it came to light
Wildlife enthusiast and WWF-India's senior programme officer Shubhobroto Ghosh, who recently digitised the book, explained how it came into his possession. He said that his grandfather had the book and passed it on to his father. His father in turn gifted it to him last week when he was in Kolkata.
Satyajit Ray's son, Sandip Ray and Soumen Paul, a researcher, also have copies of the book. These are the only three copies known so far. There are two photographs of each animal – in blue and in red. If one looks at the images using an ordinary 3D glass one gets a superimposed view of a single image. Ray designed the cover to give readers an idea of what three-dimensional imagery was although the picture used was a two dimensional one. It was a pioneering effort and it marks a spot in the history of Indian print industry. Probably, no such work was done before and since then.
The late discovery of such a work by the talented Satyajit Ray bears testimony to the legacy he left behind. Today he is also one among sixteen global figures who have been recognised by the United Nations for their contribution to the common good of humanity through their innovative and trend-setting styles in their respective fields of art. Almost everyone associated with West Bengal still bears great pride for the maestro and his works, some of which are still being discovered decades after he has ceased to be with us.
Illustrations by Satyajit Ray (boichitro.org)
Lead image: boichitro.org